People who stand up against sexual assault within activist circles, just as in the United States legal system, can be left to navigate inadequate procedures, academic-style jargon, false counter-narratives, and time dragging on without recourse. Unfortunately there is an unquantifiable burden of seeking justice. The triggered re-trauma, the spotlight on personal matters, along with often unsatisfactory outcomes for survivors who do push through, are just some of the factors that make for under reporting of sexual assault even within presumably receptive groups.
Recently, public postings were made by the Providence IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) regarding the matter that led to the formation of our group, so we think it is important to share our side of the story. What we hope to convey to our fellow activists and to the general public is our deep concern about sexual violence within activist circles and our communities, how we have taken action around specific incidences of sexual assault involving a local organization, and our hopes for your support as we keep pushing for justice on this and other matters.
Our group is RAGE, Resistance & Action for Gender Equity. We are community members you see every day. We share a belief and act on the ideal that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” As part of pushing for more inclusive and just communities, our activism includes challenging injustice we face based on gender or sexual identity. While glaring inequity persists in mainstream society, within social movements it also exists, and takes vigilance to model a desired culture of intersectional justice.
Even in activist circles, groups we join to contribute our energy for social change, we are often left to confront internal oppression and suppression we thought we would all be fighting together. Those of us who experience oppression based on gender or sexuality may be relieved to hear a group’s theoretically supportive rhetoric, only to later be left disappointed when, in practice, matters such as sexual assault are handled in a way that reinforces cis/hetero-patriarchy. It is an extra blow when those you thought you were working together with to build a “better new world” uphold and benefit from the very foundations of injustice they espouse to be fighting against.
Activists who attempt to address sexual assault within groups are often faced with their own internal dilemmas (“Am I creating a distraction from the work at hand by bringing this incident to light? Will going to the police be a betrayal of our collective ideals? What if my own comrades don’t believe me?”), as well as troublesome and potentially dangerous responses from members of their circles (“We can’t know for sure because there are conflicting stories. If you don’t want to put energy toward transformative justice you are culpable in the perpetuation of your attacker’s future violent acts. We’ll form a committee to address your concerns at some point. We don’t have the energy to deal with this.”), or worse, silence.
In Providence, many of us know and rally alongside each other, whether we associate with one particular political group or another. Solidarity among left organizations and individuals sets our community apart from other regions, where arguments over small ideological differences can often get in the way of organizing. This is why our group was so disappointed by the IWW: fellow activists we have stood beside for years *knowingly* put us and other gender-oppressed community members at risk, while simultaneously continuing to proclaim solidarity with oppressed communities. While the Providence IWW has existed for decades, their profile has recently been elevated due to an increased interest in political activism and their acquisition of a “union hall.”
We understand how excited Providence IWW members must have been when someone offered to purchase a space for them, how they would finally have a physical location to work on projects and engage the community. However, many people did not know until recently that the Providence IWW union hall was purchased – and is still owned by – a person with a history of being accused of sexual violence. This history was neither addressed nor acknowledged by the union until this person was accused of committing another assault in the Providence community. We do not understand how our “comrades” in the Providence IWW did not consider that someone who has been accused of sexual violence owning their space might make people feel unsafe, triggered, or placed in actual physical danger. By overlooking and covering up this individual’s alleged history of sexual violence, our “comrades” gave their tacit permission for him to re-offend. Over the course of the past year, behind the façade of “solidarity forever,” several allegations of sexual assault have been reported, as well as institutional missteps. While we are somewhat relieved that after several months of our group’s pressure the Providence IWW is publicly recognizing this matter, we are still left concerned with what has occurred and what remains to be done.
Our community action group RAGE formed in early December 2016. Two female former Providence IWW members (one of whom is a survivor of sexual violence by a fellow IWW member) reached out to others outside the IWW for support after the organization had failed to take action. The alleged sexual assault by a Providence IWW member is said to have happened in September 2015, and a year later there had not been any real movement on the issue. While waiting for the IWW to act on her complaint, the survivor learned that another woman had been sexually assaulted in the summer of 2016. This alleged attack was said to have been committed by the owner of the union hall. Last year, one woman in our group had tried to initiate discussion and internal policy around sexual assault within the IWW. It was the reason she had re-joined the organization after hearing of the issue and realizing that, with a vast majority of cis-gendered male members, her role could make a difference in swaying the group to acknowledge sexual assault as a serious issue demanding immediate attention.
After a meeting in the spring of 2016, when she passionately argued the importance of the issue to mostly unsympathetic “comrades,” she left the meeting. Even though she did not formally quit, she was removed from internal email lists within a week, effectively expelling her from the organization she was trying to improve. After months of feeling hopeless and silenced, of waiting for some internal process to do something, she reached out to others outside the organization and a group of us began to meet intensely, to support the survivors, and to make a plan to exert external pressure on the Providence IWW.
I first signed up with the Providence IWW in 2009. I had been an active member for years. Some of these people I have known for a long time and considered them to be my friends or at the very least, people who I thought I could count on to have my back. I never would have imagined that these people, who I had put so much faith in would ever betray me like this. I feel absolutely devastated and disappointment is not a strong enough word. I am so hurt, so saddened, so exhausted, mentally and emotionally drained and traumatized at this breaking of solidarity.
Sadly, this is not the first time I have been in a situation where those who I thought cared for me, would put my safety at risk by not choosing to confront sexual violence directly and immediately. This is not the first time I have felt ignored and brushed aside, and been made to feel that I didn’t deserve to be informed and therefore able to protect myself. This is not the first time that that decision was taken from me. Throughout my life I have been consistently let down by people…the police, the judicial system, even by members of my own family and now this. My heart is broken yet again…and I continue to watch the women and people I care about repeatedly be hurt.
“But now, I refuse to just stand by any longer. This must end and I will do everything in my power to stop it. Being a part of this group has reminded me that we are worth fighting for. We are not going to let this slide. We will not allow this.”
– co-founding member of RAGE
We strategized at our meetings about how to hold the Providence IWW accountable and how to make sure our community is better informed. While our local “comrades” had let us down, we were quickly successful in gaining support and cancellations from out-of-town activists who had been scheduled to hold events at the IWW hall. These included an outspoken anti-fascism organizer and a well-known environmental and social justice activist. We thank them both for immediately understanding the urgency of the situation, as well as the contradictory optics in holding anti-oppression events at a venue failing to resolve its own internal sexual assaults and gender-based oppression. What happened next will not be a surprise to anyone who has seen the effectiveness of boycotts, how all of a sudden an issue that was being ignored shoots to the top of the agenda.
We were glad to see the effect, how an emergency meeting was called by the IWW branch to discuss the matter of sexual assault associated with their organization. In the future we hope reflection and action will occur immediately without our intervention, and that sexual assaults will not happen at all, but in this case RAGE takes our responsibility seriously and is proud of the role we played.
While we were still uncertain of what was being discussed or decided internally, we decided that to make sure our message was clear, we would take direct action by delivering a set of demands to the Providence IWW hall.
A group of us went to the building with our demands blown up on a 3 by 4 foot poster and proceeded to deliver them in a manner we knew our “comrades” would understand, atop a windowpane. In addition we delivered a building inspection-style “F”, acknowledging their failure in properly addressing matters of sexual assault. We purposely chose a time when a members meeting was being held, so while the window display was quickly removed, we were sure to also leave clean copies of our demands, including the letter and text below, signed “Solidarity Forever?” (Names that were included in our delivered demand statement have been omitted for this article.)
AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL
December 18, 2016
TO: Providence IWW
In light of events over the course of this past year, it has been made painfully clear to members of the Providence community that our trusted allies have not been capable of addressing and implementing even the most basic procedures regarding sexual misconduct in a timely manner. Inaction and complacency were chosen instead of urgency, at the expense of our safety. There is ignorance, and then there is purposefully withholding information. This has been proven to be dangerous, especially in the case of repeat offender, [owner of the Providence IWW building]. He chose not to share information about himself to multiple women. Those closest to him knew of this and chose to keep that information. Information that was not theirs to keep. This directly endangered women and led to yet another assault. Although a handful of members were told directly of a sexual assault perpetrated by [a Providence IWW member], they refused to take action and failed to notify anyone in the community. In doing so, they betrayed the trust of the survivor and everyone else that believed sexual assault would be taken seriously and acted upon swiftly.
People deserve to be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be around _____ and _____, and others like them. Individuals should be able to assess that risk themselves. By withholding information, a decision was made for us, and that is a blatant violation of our autonomy. As a result of the greatly mishandled incidents over this past year, as well as the inaction towards addressing the harboring of known rapists within the group, we as a community will no longer stand for complacency and inaction.
Statement of demands:
We demand that we be believed. We demand that any identified perpetrators of sexual misconduct be immediately banned from community spaces. We demand that in addition to immediate expulsion of offenders, present and future community members will be immediately informed of any individual’s previous violent history. We demand that your organization have a viable plan of action for preventing and responding to sexual misconduct in place and available by January 18, 2017. We also demand that any member who failed in their responsibility to prevent and address the systematic sexism and violence being perpetrated within their organizations immediately step down and relinquish responsibility. We will no longer be ignored when we cry out for justice and accountability. We DEMAND respect.
A few weeks after we delivered our demands, in early January 2017, we were greeted with the Providence IWW’s public response in the form of social media postings. We were hopeful that the branch was in fact “working on it.” Where there had been no specific procedures to deal with interpersonal violence, there was now a new policy enacted, largely based on a proposal a member of our group had tried to put forward the previous year. However, we remain uncertain whether they can work on this issue in an unbiased manner. Just as with other organizations, it is nearly impossible to have internal self-investigation. Furthermore, we find it counter to the integrity of our Rhode Island activist community that many of the solutions seem only to address “formal complaints” that have been filed within the Providence IWW complaints system.
It overlooks assaults that have been known but not formally “filed,’ when survivors understandably want nothing to do with the organization associated with the assault. Additionally, among all the words of the Providence IWW’s public statement regarding the assault from September 2015, we want to clarify to those who may have skimmed the content, the “complainant” is not the same person as the “survivor” but rather an internal Providence IWW member who filed the complaint at the survivor’s request. This is important to know as several provisions specifically mention the complainant in a way that an outsider might misunderstand to mean the survivor, such as in the sentence “The complainant who initiated the process has expressed satisfaction with its results.” As the survivor in question is among our group, they wanted to point out that sentence is not about them but rather the person who filed the complaint.
While we are encouraged by the attempts at disclosure, there are many points of the Providence IWW’s recent messages we take issue with, too many to address in this article. One that jumps forward is the implication that members of the Providence IWW were unaware of sexual assault allegations until recently. From what we know this is inaccurate, members knew of the owner’s past before they allowed and encouraged him to purchase the building for their use over a year ago. The most recent assaults were also known for many months by some branch members, who subsequently failed to inform others, risking the safety of more people. Last week we were glad to see yet another successful step come out of our organizing to push for transparency by the Providence IWW. Communication was released as an email to groups and individuals, addressing the contentious past and current sexual assault allegations against the fellow IWW member who is the building’s owner. We recognize this must have been a difficult decision for the Providence IWW to make and we applaud their moves to inform the public and attempt to deal with this matter.
We strongly agree with many of the principles of transformative justice, when accompanied with the appropriate tools, resources, and transparency. But we are cautious when we see such practices attempted multiple times without success. We also know there is much to deconstruct in our society, from colonialism to racism, from sexism to mass incarceration, from capitalism to xenophobia, and that ending sexual assault will take time and intentional diligence in the current context. RAGE was founded firmly within the practice of intersectional solidarity, with an urgency to point out what we see our community needs to heal and effectively organize for liberation on multiple fronts. We remain hopeful that healing and long-term proactive policies will come out of all this.
For now, our trust in the Providence IWW as an institution is still in need of repair through concrete action. We urge our comrades within the Providence IWW to use common sense solidarity, to stand with those who face gender oppression, to choose us and your core ideals over a piece of private property. What must be done to fully rebuild our trust and the trust of the community is still not entirely clear, but we demand to be part of that discussion, and we know such mutual trust is more valuable than any building. We ask the broader community to continue to stand with us as we organize for accountability and transparency, to share in dialogue as we question and plan for solutions.
As activists know, our work continues day to day before and beyond elections, but this past one has put activism in a heightened state. At a time when casual acceptance of sexual violence has been elevated to the oval office, solidarity against gender oppression is critical, especially within movements. We want to fight together with those who believe in justice, inclusive across gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, age, language, geography, and so on. Because now is not the political moment to waste fighting against those who would call us our comrades, it is critical to strengthen camaraderie and mutual respect. Whether it takes difficult conversations or direct action, such means are useful if they lead to discussion, reflection, shifting practice, and ultimately a more solid network of social movements our future societies can be modeled on. We are here to be a part of that work and part of that future.